It’s MAY THE FOURTH!
(UPDATED 5/4/21: It’s May the Fourth! Perfect time to re-present this piece from 2015, when Marvel’s new Star Wars series launched. Dig it. — Dan)
By JOHN DiBELLO
Marvel’s new Star Wars #1 has hit the racks for all your star-warring, Wookiee-petting, arm-chopping enjoyment, but forever in comic-book history this grand event will be marked with an asterisk and the footnote “Volume 2.”
This is the second time Marvel’s released a Star Wars comic, the first a long time ago in… well, you know the rest. The movie-to-comic adaptation of the original Star Wars (now known to us as Episode IV: The Good One) and its subsequent continued series broke records and became one of Marvel’s top-selling titles of the decade, racking up an impressive 107 issues (plus three annuals, a four-issue miniseries, and two kids’ cartoon adaptation series).
But this is one case where Marvel’s justified in starting the numbering from scratch rather than with #108. Think of the new issue as the Marvel Now! initiative might term it, All-New Star Wars #1.
And yet, I’ll always have a fondness for the first Marvel Star Wars deep down in my midichlorians, because Star Wars #21 was the first comic book I ever bought.
I remember standing at a newsstand in late 1978 looking at magazines when the dastardly figure of Darth Vader looming over Luke, Leia and the droids caught my eye. I’d certainly had comic books previously — thanks to my mom, who kept me well-equipped with Gold Key/Western comics licensing Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons, Dennis the Menace, the occasional Archie, and what certainly must have been the first DC comic book I ever read, The Three Mouseketeers #6 (March 1971).
But I’d never read nor bought a Marvel comic, and my vague awareness of their characters was restricted to the live-action Incredible Hulk and cartoon Spider-Man TV series. But I was a Star Wars fan from the first time (of seventeen) in 1977 that I saw the Death Star blow up, and while I originally dismissed the Marvel Star Wars book, Issue #21 grabbed me by the throat like Darth at a casual breakfast meeting.
1978 was still the first era of the Star Wars phenomenon, and there wasn’t the wealth of novels and comics for the fan to dive into. Besides the movie’s novelization, a couple “making of” books, and the ’78 novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (which planted the earliest buds of the Expanded Universe), there wasn’t much to attract the Star Wars fan in the book world. Marvel’s comic book had hit the stands immediately prior to the movie release, but I pointedly ignored it. Why? Part of the reason may have been my unfamiliarity with the regular comic book concept of “this cover scene does not appear inside this book,” which gave us a handful of overdramatic scenes that never happened on the screen.
When Marvel exhausted its initial six-issue adaptation and began to tell new stories “beyond the movie…beyond the galaxy!” I wasn’t impressed by what I saw at first.
This can be laid fully in the fuzzy lap of one of Marvel Star Wars‘ most infamous characters, Jaxxon the Lepus Carnivorus smuggler. Or, as I like to call him, Giant Green Star Wars Rabbit.
Jax, a parody of Bugs Bunny as a hard-shooting space cowboy, was pretty much the product of a creative team attempting to find its footing in these very early days of Star Wars licensing — remember, after all, this is the same era that gave us The Star Wars Holiday Special. It wasn’t hard for fans to sneer at Jax, especially when the bald-headed Fud and bird-beaked Dafi were added to his supporting characters.
Years later, I came to realize I was of course wrong in rejecting the potential narrative beauty of a seven-foot-tall violent space rabbit, because Jaxxon is in fact awesome and I loves him to pieces. I still contend that replacing Jar Jar Binks with Jaxxon would have made The Phantom Menace a classic for our times, if you edited out maybe half an hour and 10 other characters.
Since I had yet to discover superhero comics, I was initially critical of Star Wars‘ regular penciller Carmine Infantino. My know-it-all young teenage self rejected him for flat, two-dimensional-looking starships and spacecraft that looked like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Savings Bank.
His character design didn’t impress the young me, either: Human faces and bodies looked too muscular and angular compared with the Star Wars film. To my eye, Princess Leia’s infamous cinnamon-roll hairdo looked too restricted and symmetrical, and even Threepio and Artoo appeared unnaturally squat or square.
Let’s not even mention how much I sneered at Infantino’s depicting of planets turning to ice in space, with hanging icicles as if there were downwards gravity. Sure, it’s scientifically wrong, but golly, I was a self-important little entitled prig, wasn’t I?
More realistic face and figure design reminiscent of the actual actors wouldn’t appear until Al Williamson’s art on Marvel’s adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back, but for all its attention to detail, Williamson’s brilliant art didn’t have the usual dynamic movement of an exciting comic book. It looked more like a series of posed stills from the movie.
There was also criticism of his tendency to fill in space with thousands of background moons and planets. Williamson’s Star Wars galaxy would have made a smorgasbord for Galactus, wouldn’t it?
But that was in the (then) future, and I was talking about Star Wars #21. What compelled me to lay down my dime and quarter (“Still only 35¢!” the cover proclaimed) and buy a comic book I’d dismissed previously, and (unknown to me) in the middle of a six-part story? That cover image of Vader did a lot, but when I flipped through the pages, this portrayal of the Dark Lord of the Sith was the game changer for young me:
It was…still is…a favorite image of Darth Vader, wreaking death and destruction against the ironically beautiful background of a brilliant floral garden world.
I didn’t know then that this was the first new appearance of Vader in the series following the original movie adaptation. Despite my love of Luke, Han, Chewie and the Princess, it was their ultimate nemesis who drew me to the Dark Side of picking up a book I’d initially disliked… and onto the calamitous path of a comic book fan and collector. Because when I discovered this was an adventure in progress, I had to find and buy the first parts of the story… and then, of course, continue to pick it up every month.
Around the same time I began to buy and read Marvel’s Battlestar Galactica series as well. I hunted down back issues of both, venturing for the first time into the strange, new world of a comic-book shop. I found older back issues, minus their front covers, in the used-book basement section of the long-departed Economy Books in Syracuse, N.Y., back in the days when second-hand shops tore the covers off paperbacks and magazines for full return credit but kept the coverless books for resale. The book and magazine industry later cracked down on this resale scheme, but at the time it was a gold mine of cheap recent back issues.
Marvel’s Star Wars series also contained “Bullpen Bulletins” and ads hyping other Marvel books. I resisted those for about a year and a half, restricting my comic fandom to their two licensed sci-fi books. I distinctly remember, however, avidly reading a copy of Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics in my local library and being especially captivated by the reprint of X-Men #1 — what more perfect concept could there to appeal to a moody teen who felt he didn’t fit in anywhere?
When I figured out that 1963 guy Hank McCoy in Sons of Origins was the same 1981 blue furry guy Hank McCoy in the pages of The Avengers, I bought my first Marvel-proper book, Avengers #197…also drawn by Carmine Infantino. I’d been sucked into the Marvel Universe. Thousands of comic books later, I’m still gleefully immersed in it. All thanks to Star Wars #21 and a portrait of Darth Vader doin’ that thing he does so well. Not bad for an initial 35¢ investment.
So it’s not just my love for Star Wars but my devotion to Star Wars Marvel Comics that has my Force-senses rollin’ and shakin’ like I’m being hit by great balls of force-lightning, all for the new Star Wars. It won’t have to work as hard to capture my attention: I’m reading it right from the start. And you know, maybe, just maybe, the time is right to bring a misunderstood and eventually favorite character of mine, Jaxxon the Giant Green Star Wars Rabbit, back into the pages of a Marvel Star Wars comic book.
What do you say, guys?
Or, maybe not.
NOTE: Jaxxon has indeed returned since this was first published. — Dan
— Marvel’s STAR WARS #7: My First Step Into A Larger World. Click here.
— 13 COVERS: A Bronze Age STAR WARS Celebration. Click here.